Kant and Judaism
Philosophy has always questioned revelation in general and revealed morality in particular. But no philosopher prior to Kant found it necessary to inquire whether all revealed morality might be less than truly moral simply by virtue of being revealed: that is to say, whether all revealed morality might be a contradiction in terms.
The most radical objection to revealed morality made by pre-Kantian philosophy was against the claim of some theologians that revelation is the sole source of our knowledge of moral law. Philosophy was forced to reject this claim. For to be obligated to any law, a man must be able to know that law; and yet, on the admission of the theologians themselves, revealed moral law is accessible only to those who possess the revealed Scriptures. This objection, however, by no means amounts to a rejection of revealed morality. In the eyes of philosophy, a law to qualify as moral must, in addition to being knowable, also be universally obligatory. Therefore, the pre-Kantian objection to revealed morality merely requires religion to provide for an access to revealed law—or rather, to the moral part of it—that is universally human and independent of revelation. If religion can do this, pre-Kantian philosophy is prepared to accept revealed law as moral.
Can this requirement be met by Judaism? One’s first resort would be the seven commandments imposed upon the children of Noah; unlike the revelation at Mount Sinai, which is for the children of Israel alone, the Noachidic revelation is given to all men. But this will satisfy the philosopher only if he can exact a further concession. The Noachidic “revelation”—if one chooses to retain this term—must be regarded as accessible without a Scripture: for the Noachides have no Scripture. It must be, that is, the apprehension of a universal human capacity—in short, just what the philosopher has called reason all along.
Traditional Judaism may have misgivings about this concession. Nevertheless, it will make it—and not only because philosophy requires it to. The Talmud itself (Yoma 67 b) distinguishes between moral revealed laws which, “had they not been written by God would have had to be written by men,” and non-moral revealed laws, “to which Satan and the Gentiles object.” But if, without divine action, men would have had to write moral law, then they must be able to write it. And if the Gentiles—who object to non-moral revealed law—do not object to moral revealed law, then men, by virtue of their reason, must in fact have written at least some of it.
Thus, however much the revealed morality of Judaism and the rational morality of pre-Kantian philosophy may quarrel about the content of moral law, they have no necessary quarrel concerning its foundations. The philosopher has no moral reason for objecting in principle to a morality resting on revelation. And the Jewish theologian has no religious reason for objecting in principle to a morality resting on reason. Moreover, this mutual tolerance concerning the foundations of morality also produces opportunities for settling conflicts concerning its content. One can point to the long line of Jewish rationalists who believed that since the same God was the creator of human reason and the giver of the Sinaitic revelation, the discoveries of the one and the teachings of the other could be in no genuine conflict.
This State of peaceful coexistence between reason and revelation was upset by a revolutionary thesis that Kant first developed in his Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals (1785), and to which he kept returning in his later work, as if unable to leave it alone. The thesis is stated in the Fundamental Principles as follows:
[If the will is moral] it is not merely subject to law, but subject in such a way that it must also be regarded as imposing the law on itself, and subject to it for that reason only. . . . All past efforts to identify the principle of morality have failed without exception. For while it was seen that man is bound by his duty to laws, it was not seen that he is subject only to his own, albeit at the same time universal legislation, and obligated to act only according to his own, albeit. . . universally legislating will. So long as one thought of man as merely subject to a law, whatever its content, without this law originating in his own will, one had to think of him as impelled to action by something other than himself. The law had to carry with it some interest which induced or impelled him to action. But in this way all labor to discover the supreme ground of duty was lost beyond recovery. For one could thus never arrive at duty, but merely at the necessity of action for some interest.
And as Kant concludes, an externally compelling or cajoling law must necessarily be “heteronomous,” or impure, so far as moral motivation is concerned. To be pure, a moral law must be autonomous, or self-imposed.
This thesis goes well beyond the idea that a law, to be morally obligatory, must be knowable to all men. Kant would have considered that this condition was met by those ancient thinkers who identified the moral law with the law of the universe, or for that matter, by their present-day heirs who identify moral law with the laws of mental health. The essence of the Kantian thesis is that neither of these laws, however universal, can by itself obligate a man to obedience; they can do no more than promise happiness or mental health as the reward of obedience, and threaten unhappiness or neurosis as the punishment for defiance. They are not obligatory because they are not imposed on the individual by himself. Thus, while they may be prudent, wise, or beneficial, they cannot be moral.
As Kant sees it, then, many laws can induce or force us to obey, but no law in heaven or on earth can obligate us to obey unless we accept ourselves as obligated to obey. And unless we can accept ourselves as obligated, we cannot be obligated. Once clearly understood, Kant’s thesis is so powerful as to be very nearly irresistible. As such, it poses an unprecedented challenge to every revealed morality—regardless of content—and simply by virtue of its being revealed. The challenge can be stated as follows: If in order to be moral a law must be self-imposed, and not imposed from without, then how can a law given or imposed by God have genuine moral qualities? Before Kant, moral philosophy, as we have seen, could accept revealed morality conditionally. Kant’s moral philosophy threatens it radically, for revelation is either a gift to man from without—the gift of a Being other than man—or else it is not revelation at all.
According to one widely held interpretation of Kant’s thesis, the will, in imposing moral law on itself, creates that law. Moral law is the collective creation of the human spirit, and is moral only because it is so created. In rising to the life of morality, man actively transforms his own being by means of ideals which are themselves a human creation. All true morality is creative simply by virtue of being truly moral. And all submissiveness, no matter to whom or what, is less than truly moral simply because it is submissive.
Philosophers who accept this version of the Kantian thesis will reject in principle all revealed morality. They will look upon such a morality as at worst a passive acquiescence in the whims of an alien deity, and at best as a creative morality which fails to recognize itself for what it is—mistaking for a received gift what is in truth its own creation. And because of this mistake, it still falls short of pure morality.
But it is important to realize that this version of the Kantian thesis is at variance with the position taken by Kant himself.1 For Kant emphatically denies that the human spirit creates moral law. In order to impose moral law on himself, man need not, in Kant’s view, be either its individual or its collective creator. He need be capable only of appropriating a law, which in fact he has not created, as though he had created it.
Unlike the “creative morality” philosophies, Kant’s own doctrine therefore does not rule out revealed morality from the start. For if the moral will need not create but only appropriate moral law, why might it not appropriate a law given by God? This possibility, however, seems to disappear when we inquire more deeply into the question; while not ruling out revealed morality from the start, Kant’s doctrine very much threatens it in the end. Let us see how.
The Kantian assertion that the moral will must act as though it were the creator of moral law confronts the believer in a revealed morality with a grave dilemma. If, on the one hand, he concedes that the will can and must impose the God-given law upon itself, he is forced to say that its God-givenness is irrelevant. If, on the other hand, he insists that the God-givenness of the law does not and cannot at any point become irrelevant, he must deny that the will can impose that law on itself, and he must acknowledge that it can only submit to the revealed law for such non-moral reasons as trust in divine promises and fear of divine threats.2
Kant himself clearly perceives this dilemma, but it does not trouble him. The religious man, he says, must choose between what he terms “theological morality” and “moral theology,” and to choose moral theology is to gain everything and to lose nothing.
The religious man who opts for the other possibility and chooses “theological morality,” accepts laws as moral because they are the will of God. Thus he not only submits to an alien law, but he does so insofar as it is alien, and indeed, because it is alien. Consequently, he cannot impose that law upon himself, and he can only obey it—if obey it he does—because of the external sanctions attached to it. “Theological morality” is, and can only be, “heteronomous” morality.
The religious man, according to Kant, can rise above this and achieve moral autonomy only if he chooses “moral theology.” Instead of accepting laws as moral because they are the will of God, moral theology ascribes laws to God because they are intrinsically moral, and known to be so quite apart from the will of God. Because the human will is capable of recognizing their intrinsic morality, it can impose these laws upon itself, thus achieving moral autonomy.
However, Kant’s moral theology is purchased at a high price. For in imposing moral laws on itself, the will need not and indeed cannot, pay heed to their God-givenness. The act which appropriates the God-given moral law reduces its God-givenness to irrelevance. Therefore, one might well ask why Kant’s religious man who achieves moral autonomy should still be a religious man—why he should end up with “moral theology” rather than with morality pure and simple. What necessity is there for ascribing the moral law to divine authorship, and what is the function of this ascription? This is a question of some complexity. But, in Kant’s view, so long as we think within a purely moral context—asking ourselves what our duty is and why we should do it—the question does not arise at all. In that context, the question of the author of the moral law may be, or possibly even must be, left open. Kant writes: “The veiled goddess before whom we bend our knees is the moral law within us. . . . To be sure, we hear her voice and clearly understand her commandments, but are, in hearing them, in doubt as to who is speaking: whether man, in the self-sufficient power of his own reason, or Another, whose nature is unknown, and who speaks to man through the medium of his reason. Perhaps we would do better to refrain even from inquiring. For such a question is merely speculative, and our duty remains the same, whatever the source from which it issues.”
In confronting the revealed morality of Judaism with the challenge of Kant’s thesis, one makes two extraordinary discoveries. The first is that this morality is neither autonomous nor heteronomous—to take both terms in their Kantian sense. The other is that Jewish religious thought has only rarely noticed this crucial fact, and then only dimly, in the nearly two hundred years of its debate with the Kantian position.
This failure is no doubt due to the apologetic tendencies which have marred all the standard Jewish responses to Kant. According to a central doctrine of the Jewish tradition, the commandments are not truly performed until they are performed for their own sake. Orthodox thinkers would hardly be expected to overlook this doctrine; yet in confronting Kant, this is precisely what they seem to have done. In their concern to rescue God as the divine law-giver from irrelevance, they have been prone to argue that the commandments would necessarily have remained unperformed were it not for the divine sanctions behind them. Instead of insisting that the revealed morality of Judaism is not heteronomous, they have tended to insist that all morality must be so—thereby not only positing a false doctrine, but also pleading guilty, on behalf of Judaism, to a mistaken charge.
The Liberal responses to Kant have suffered even more gravely from apologetic bias. If Orthodox thinkers have argued that the morality of Judaism is revealed but heteronomous, Liberal thinkers have often acted as though they regarded it as autonomous but not revealed. Their purpose has been to make the prophets and rabbis speak with a new voice; and the voice was the voice of the Kantian self-legislating reason.
This transformation has been attempted in two different ways—both doomed to failure. Some Liberal apologists have claimed that the prophets and rabbis taught—as it were, unconsciously—an autonomous morality, while continuing to hold a conscious faith in a revealing God. But such an interpretation still leaves their morality in need of liberal purification, and this eliminates the revealing God. The other way has been to regard the prophets and rabbis as not only teaching an autonomous morality but also as recognizing it as such. But this view involves a scandalous distortion of historical fact.
Thus, neither the Orthodox nor the Liberal apologists have perceived that the source and life of the revealed morality of Judaism lies precisely in the togetherness of a divine commanding Presence which never dissipates into irrelevance, with a human response which never loses its freedom to appropriate what it receives. The Jewish thinker cannot respond adequately to Kant’s position until he becomes philosophically aware of this togetherness. He can then restate Kant’s challenge as follows: how can man appropriate a God-given law or commandment, accepting and performing it as though it were his own, and yet remain during the very act of appropriation in an essential relation of obedience to its divine giver? How can man morally obey a law which is, and never ceases to be, revealed? According to Kant, this is clearly impossible. However, the Jewish philosopher is left in wonder: if he is to believe the testimony of both Jewish life and Jewish thought, what Kant thinks is impossible can yet be actual.
In order to answer this question which Kant forces upon Judaism, we must first grasp the phenomenon which gives rise to it. What is essential in this phenomenon will slip from notice if we try to attend separately to the divine commanding Presence in its otherness, and then to the human response in its power of free appropriation, and fail to comprehend the two in their essential unity. This unity is basic to Judaism and always has been. The idea that the divine commanding Presence can exist without the free human response, or vice versa, is found only in periods of spiritual decay; indeed, this idea is the decay. Except for such periods, there is no age in the spiritual history of Judaism so “primitive” that it manifests—in the style of “theological morality”—only a divine commanding Presence but “not yet” an act of human appropriation. Nor is there an age so “advanced” that it manifests—in the style of “moral theology”—only a free human appropriation but “no longer” a commanding God who can be present in all His otherness.
The otherness of the divine commanding Presence is most starkly disclosed in that pristine moment of Jewish history when the Divine, first reaching out to the human, calls it to its service. In that moment there are as yet no specified commandments, but only an unspecified divine commanding Presence. Abraham is commanded to go to another country without being told of the country, or of the purpose his migration is to serve. Prophets are called as messengers, before being given a specific message. Israel as a whole is challenged, knowing as yet no more of the challenge than that it is divine. In the pristine moment, the revelation of the divine commanding Presence does not communicate a finite content which the man who receives it might appraise and appropriate in the light of familiar standards. On the contrary, it calls into question all such content, and, indeed, all standards. Whatever may be true of subsequent history, there can be no mistaking this initial voice for an already familiar one, such as conscience or reason or “spiritual creativity.”
Therefore, it might seem that the human response to this revelation, whatever else it may be, can have nothing in it of a free appropriation. Certainly, there can be no appropriation of specific commandments in the light of commensurate human standards; for there are as yet no such commandments. And there can be no appropriation of the unspecified divine commanding Presence itself, since it discloses itself as incommensurable with all things human. Thus, one might conclude that if there is any human freedom at all in the pristine moment, it can only be of the heteronomous kind, which is conditioned by fear or hope.
And yet it is precisely a freedom of this kind which could not survive the touch of the divine Presence. Such freedom might survive, perhaps, in moments of divine distance which, giving rise to only finite fear or hope, could leave room, as it were, for a freedom conditioned by them. But a fear or hope produced by the touch of divine Presence would necessarily be an absolute fear or hope; as such, it would inevitably overwhelm the freedom conditioned by them. If, then, man were capable of only heteronomous freedom in relation to God, a direct encounter with the divine Presence would reduce him, as long as that encounter lasted, to a creature without will, the tool of a blind fate.
Such a reduction is indeed the primordial experience of some religions. But it is not the primordial experience of Judaism. For here the divine manifests itself as commanding, which requires a residue of human freedom. And since the commanding divine is also a Presence, this freedom cannot be—as we have seen—merely conditional; it must be unconditional and absolute. Finally, the unconditional and absolute human freedom that is required by the divine command must be more even than that needed to accept or reject specific commandments for their own sake and on their own merits, since there are as yet no such commandments. This freedom, then, is nothing less than the freedom to accept or reject the divine commanding Presence as a whole, and for its own sake—that is, for no other reason than that it is that Presence. It is the freedom displayed by the prophet when he responds, “Here I am, send me,” or by the people as a whole when they respond, “We shall do and hearken.”
This pristine human freedom of choice is not, however, autonomous. For if there is any moment in which it stands in essential relation to, and indeed in need of, the commanding divine Other, it is precisely at the pristine moment of encounter with the divine Presence. Without that Other, man might have the autonomy to make all kinds of choices, but he would not have the power to make this choice—to accept or reject the divine commanding Presence. How could he accept or reject God, unless God had become present for him to accept or reject? The divine commanding Presence, then, may be said to give man this power to choose. It may even be said to force the choice upon him. For in being present, it singles out. And in singling out, it rules out every escape from the choice into some spurious third alternative.
It must be emphasized that this pristine choice remains a choice. The divine commanding Presence may force it on those who have been singled out. But it does not force the particular choice they make. At the same time, the choice itself is not heteronomous; the divine commanding Presence is accepted or rejected for no other reason than that it is that Presence. Now, from the nature of this choice emerges a momentous consequence: if and when a man chooses to accept the divine commanding Presence, he does nothing less than accept the divine will as though it were his own.
But how is this humanly possible? Or, to restate our original question to reveal with full clarity what is at stake: how can man, in the very moment which most starkly discloses the gap between him and God, presume to bridge that gap by accepting God’s will simply because it is God’s—thus making it his own? More simply, how can man presume to act out of love for the sake of God?
Even prophets such as Isaiah and Jeremiah shrank from this question when they first confronted it in their lives. Therefore, a philosopher may certainly be permitted to avoid it, or at least to hold it in suspension, and turn from the primordial moment which initiates the revealed morality of Judaism to the developed life of that morality itself. Here revelation becomes a system of specified laws and commandments, and insofar as these are moral in nature, they possess undoubted permanence and undoubted intrinsic value. A Jeremiah may believe that in one situation God demands resistance to the enemy, whereas in another He demands submission. But one cannot conceive of Jeremiah as believing that God demands justice or love in one situation and injustice or hatred in another. Just how moral law can achieve permanence and intrinsic value within the framework of a revealed morality is a deep and weighty question that we shall attempt to deal with a little later on. There can be no serious doubt, however, that it has achieved such permanence in Judaism.
This achievement in itself may suggest to the philosopher that once permanent law of intrinsic value makes its appearance in Judaism, the divine commanding Presence of the primordial moment vanishes into an irrelevant past. For what could be the function of such a Presence after the primordial moment? If it contradicted moral standards already possessed by men, its voice would surely have to be rejected, as a voice of temptation. And if it confirmed these standards, it would only tell what was already known. In short, once revelation has become specified as a system of laws, an additional commanding Presence is either false or superfluous.
Now, if this were the full truth of the matter, then revealed moral law in Judaism would allow of only two human responses. Either one could obey it for its own sake, by recognizing and appropriating it for its intrinsic value; but then the divine giver of the law would become irrelevant, and so would the revealed nature of the law itself. Or else one could obey it because it is revealed; but then one could not obey it either for God’s sake or for its own. Not for God’s sake because the divine, having lost commanding Presence (or immediacy) by virtue of the rise of law, would have been reduced to the mere external sanction behind the law; not for its own sake because the law would have to be taken as standing in need of such sanctions. In short, one would be driven back to the Kantian alternative between a “moral theology” which is essentially unrevealed, and a “theological morality” which is less than fully moral.
But must the divine Presence pass into irrelevance once revealed moral law has appeared? To ask this question is to recognize that the Kantian alternative contains a hidden premise. This premise, to be sure, is hard to reject. But Judaism must be taken as implicitly rejecting it. Kant holds that moral law, in mediating between man and God, rules out or renders irrelevant an immediate divine commanding Presence. Judaism affirms that, despite the mediating function of the revealed moral law, the divine can still be present in commanding immediacy. Thus the Torah is given whenever men are ready to receive it (Midrash Tanhuma, Yitro). And this act of receiving it culminates in the confrontation with its giver. The prophet, to be sure, imparts a specific message; but the words “Thus saith the Lord” are not an empty preamble—they are part of the message itself. Kant’s hidden premise, then, is that moral law is a barrier between man and its divine giver. The premise of Judaism is that it is a bridge.
How can the law be a bridge? Only by making a most startling demand. For Kant, all morality (religious morality included) demands a twofold relationship—between man and his fellow man. The revealed morality of Judaism demands a threefold relationship involving man, his fellow man, and God Himself. If it demanded only a relationship between men, then God would indeed be reduced to the mere external sanction behind the demand. The startling claim of the revealed morality of Judaism is that God Himself enters into the relationship. He confronts man with the demand that he turn to his human neighbor, and in so doing turn back to God Himself. Micah’s well-known summary of the commandments does more than list three commandments which exist side by side. It articulates various aspects of an internally related whole. A man walks humbly before God only if he is just and merciful to his fellow man; and a man is capable only of fragmentary justice and mercy unless he is humble before God. Here lies the very core of Jewish morality.3
It follows, then, that the human response to the divine demand remains incomplete until the commandments are performed both for their own sake and for God’s sake. Further, each of these imperatives must point or lead to the other. Unless the commandments are performed for their own sake, men cannot enter the threefold relationship which involves taking the human neighbor seriously in his own right. In other words, unless performed for their own sake, the commandments remain merely within an attempted twofold relationship between man and God. We say “attempted,” for such a relationship is rejected by God Himself, who bids man to take his neighbor seriously in his own right. In doing so a man accepts both his neighbor, and the commandment concerning him, as possessing intrinsic value. Thus, he performs the commandment for its own sake.
And yet the commandment remains incompletely performed if performed for its own sake alone. For if the act of performing it reveals the human neighbor—as well as the performer himself—to be of intrinsic value, this is ultimately because the divine commanding Presence so reveals them. Thus, even the man who begins by accepting only the content of the revelation is finally led to confront the divine revealer. This is why performance of the commandment for its sake points to its performance for God’s sake.
In Jewish teaching, then, the two reasons for performing the commandment have an integral and necessary relation. In the last analysis this is so because God is not removed beyond direct human access and relevance by the intrinsic value of man and the intrinsic value of the commandment which relates man to man. On the contrary, He discloses Himself through all intrinsic value, as being its ultimate source. And the man who accepts this disclosure acts for the sake of God. In the hour of his martyrdom Rabbi Akiba knew that the love of God is not one commandment standing side by side with others. It is the life of all.
Evidently, then, our refuge in the revealed moral law of Judaism—the refuge we took from the momentous question raised by a consideration of the pristine moment of divine commanding Presence—provides only limited safety, if by “safety” is meant the comfortable distance, and hence irrelevance, of the divine. We first saw that even in this pristine moment the possibility of free human appropriation exists. We have now seen that even when human freedom appropriates specific laws and commandments endowed with permanence and intrinsic value, the divine commanding Presence continues to confront it. Divine commanding Presence and appropriating human freedom still point to each other, and the philosophical question raised by their relation can no longer be suspended or avoided. In the light of the foregoing we can now reformulate that question as follows: how can man presume to participate in a threefold relationship which involves not only his fellow man but also God Himself? How can he act out of love for the sake of God—as he must in order to participate in this relationship—when God is God and man is only human? In Kantian language, what is the condition of the possibility of such action?
Kant himself did not shrink from this question; he even supplied an answer to it. But his answer is not and cannot be the Jewish answer. We have here come upon a final parting of ways.
Kant writes: “The virtuous man fears God without being afraid of Him. This is because he is not worried lest he himself might wish to resist Him or His commandments. God is awe-inspiring to him because such resistance, while unthinkable in his own case, is not in itself impossible.” For Kant’s virtuous man, it is “unthinkable” that he might not will the will of God. By contrast, for the Hebrew prophet, when first singled out, it is unthinkable that he could will it. To fear God at all, Kant’s virtuous man must imagine himself willing what he is in fact incapable of willing. The rabbis, however, need no such strategy in order to stand in fear of God. Their inconceivable possibility is not the fear, but rather the love, of God. For Kant, the oneness of the human with the divine will is assured once virtue is achieved. For prophets and rabbis, such oneness is very far from assured even for the virtuous man, and indeed, in one sense, for him least of all. For in the minds of the prophets and rabbis, there is an endless gulf between God who is God and man who is only human. How, then, is the oneness of wills possible at all?
The answer is that it is possible if God Himself has made it possible. Man can appropriate divine commandments if they are handed over for human appropriation. He can live by the Torah in the love of and for the sake of God if the Torah itself is a gift of divine love that makes such a life a human possibility. He can participate in a threefold relationship which involves God Himself if God—who in His power does not need man—in His love nevertheless chooses to need him.
The belief in the reality of this divine love is as pervasive in Judaism as is the belief in revealed law itself. It holds that divine commandment and divine love are not only coeval, but also inseparable. The Torah manifests love in the very act of manifesting commandments; for in commanding humans rather than angels, it accepts these humans in their humanity. In accepting the Torah, man can accept himself as God accepts him—in his humanity. Consequently, to attempt to perform the commandments both for their sake and for the sake of God is not to attempt the humanly impossible. At least in principle the commandments can be so performed. And when they are truly performed, they are performed in joy.
This belief in a divine love made manifest in the divine commandment is present in Judaism from its earliest beginnings and continues throughout its history. If the prophet initially draws back from the divine commanding Presence, he ends by accepting it because he has experienced the divine love which makes acceptance possible. Similarly, one of the daily prayers throughout Jewish history renders thanks for the divine love which has given the commandments.
But if this faith so permeates Jewish life, why has Jewish thought, when confronted with Kant’s challenge, failed to raise it to philosophical consciousness? I suggest that one reason is the reliance of Jewish philosophers on non-Jewish modes of thought in which an ancient prejudice against Judaism is reinforced by an ignorance of Judaism (even Kant may be included here). This prejudice contrasts Jewish law with Christian love—though the invidiousness of the contrast is modified slightly by the concession that the concept of love “evolves” in later stages of Judaism. To insist that divine love is as ancient in Judaism as divine commandment remains an inadequate reply, for it still allows the possibility that such love is confined, in Pelagian style, to the remitting of sins which strict justice would condemn: thus law itself would still be prior to love and in itself loveless. The proper reply to this anti-Judaic prejudice is that divine love in Judaism is manifested within the commandments, not merely subsequent to them, and that human joy is not projected into a future beyond the life of the commandments, but is to be found within that life itself as well.
Now it is precisely this teaching that St. Paul could not comprehend or else could not accept. He asserted not only that the commandments cannot be performed wholly—an idea which was not new to the rabbis—but also that they cannot be performed at all, because man is commanded to act for God’s sake by a God who is incommensurate with all things human. In saying this, St. Paul failed to recognize—or perhaps to experience—the divine love which, by handing the commandments over for human appropriation, makes their performance a human possibility.
Kant’s moral philosophy furnishes both a protest against, and a decisive restatement of, St. Paul’s conclusion that the revealed morality of Judaism is based on a human impossibility. Kant rightly insisted that man can be morally obligated to do only what he is able to do; hence where an unbridgeable gap exists between the human and the divine, divine commandments cannot be moral commandments. However, Kant also refused—and again rightly—to divorce the divine from the moral, which compelled him to deny the gap between the divine and the human. The end result was that the divine will became a moral redundancy. Kant’s protest against St. Paul’s position, however, shares one assumption with it—the denial that divine love is manifest in the God-given commandment. Thus from the standpoint of the revealed morality of Judaism, Kant becomes the nemesis of a tradition which begins with St. Paul.
Throughout this discussion the term “Judaism” has referred to the classical Judaism of the Hebrew Bible and the rabbinic literature. The question remains whether the Jewish philosopher of today can do more than re-enact this classical faith in his mind. Can he accept it himself? It is all too obvious that faith in a divine love made manifest in revealed commandments is subject to pressures of the gravest kind, and not only from modern life but from modern thought as well. All that we can say here about an inquiry into the question is that a Jewish philosopher who conducts it must not surrender too quickly to these modern pressures. For if there is anything that makes him a Jewish philosopher, it is precisely the duty to confront, and take seriously, his own Jewish tradition. He would fail in his duty both as a philosopher and a Jew if he were ever to forget that his ancestors, at any rate, were able to live by the belief that “when the Torah came into the world, freedom came into the world.”
1 The “creative morality” interpretation of Kant by thinkers from Fichte to Hermann Cohen has also affected quite un-Kantian philosophies, such as those of Nietzsche and Dewey, as well as much popular moral and psychological thinking. Since I intend to document elsewhere the view that this interpretation is not Kantian, I can here only refer the reader to G. Krueger, Philosophic und Moral in der Kantischen Kritik.
2 Samuel Hirsch, a remarkable 19th-century Jewish thinker, neatly illustrates this dilemma. Hirsch subscribed to Kantian morality. Yet he also believed quite literally in revelation. Aware of the possibility of conflict, he sought to resolve it by interpreting revelation (following Lessing) as divine education toward moral autonomy. Hirsch's ingenuity in developing this doctrine does not save it from ultimate failure. Revelation becomes merely divine guidance, the sole purpose of which is to emancipate man from the need for guidance, and hence from revelation itself.
3 The point is perfectly expressed in a Midrash in which God is made to say: “Would that they had deserted me, and kept my Torah; for if they had occupied themselves with Torah, the leaven which is in it would have brought them back to me” (Pesikta Kahana XV). Liberal writers are fond of quoting only the first half of this Midrash, thereby perverting a profound statement of the morality of Judaism into a humanistic platitude.